Welcome to Revelation!
Our long awaited journey through the New Testament has arrived at its final book! And boy what a book it is. The Book of Revelation is steeped in mystery and confusion for years. Is it a book covering the past, the present, or the future? The simple answer is, yes! The complex answer to this question will play out in the pages ahead. Buckle your seatbelts, cause here we go!
Orienting Data for the Revelation
Content: a Christian prophecy cast in apocalyptic style and imagery and finally put in letter form, dealing primarily with tribulation (suffering) and salvation for God’s people and God’s wrath (judgment) on the Roman Empire.
Date: ca. a.d. 95 (according to Irenaeus [ca. 180])
Recipients: churches in the Roman province of Asia, who show a mix of fidelity and internal weaknesses.
Occasion: the early Christians’ refusal to participate in the cult of the emperor (who was acclaimed “lord” and “savior”) was putting them on a collision course with the state; John saw prophetically that it would get worse before it got better and that the churches were poorly prepared for what was about to take place, so he writes both to warn and encourage them and to announce God’s judgments against Rome.
Emphases: despite appearances to the contrary, God is in absolute control of history; although God’s people are destined for suffering in the present, God’s sure salvation belongs to them; God’s judgment will come on those responsible for the church’s suffering; in the end (Rev 21–22) God will restore what was lost or distorted at the beginning (Gen 1–3).
Overview of the Revelation
The cult of the emperor flourished in the province of Asia more than elsewhere in the empire; the result was that by the end of the first Christian century, the church in all its weaknesses was headed for a showdown with the state in all its splendor and might. By the Spirit, John sees that the martyrdom of Antipas (2:13) and John’s own exile (1:9) are but a small foretaste of the great havoc that the state will wreak on the church before it is all over (see 1:9;2:10; 3:10; 6:9–11; 7:14; 12:11, 17).
As a Christian prophet, John also sees this conflict in the larger context of the holy war—the ultimate cosmic conflict between God (and his Christ) and Satan (see 12:1–9)—in which God wins eternal salvation for his people. The people’s present role is to “triumph over [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, … not lov[ing] their lives so much as to shrink from death” (12:11). As God has already defeated the dragon through the death and resurrection of Christ (the Messiah is caught up to heaven, 12:5), so he will judge the state for her crimes against his people.
Specific Advice for Reading the Revelation
You may easily find yourself in the company of most contemporary Christians, for whom the Revelation is difficult to read, mostly because we are so unfamiliar with John’s medium of communication—apocalyptic literature with its bizarre imagery. Thus, along with knowing about the historical context and the way John works out his overall design (noted above), two other items will greatly aid your reading of this marvelous book—(1) to take seriously John’s own designation of his book as “the words of this prophecy” (1:3) and (2) to have some sense of how apocalyptic imagery works, even if many of the details remain a bit obscure.
By calling his work “the words of this prophecy,” John is deliberately following in the train of the great prophets of the Old Testament, in several ways: (1) He speaks as one who knows himself to be under the inspiration of the Spirit (1:10; 2:7; etc.). (2) He positions himself between some recent past events and what is about to happen in the near future. (3) He sets all forms of earthly salvation and judgment against the backdrop of God’s final end-time judgments so that the fall of Rome is to be seen not as the end itself but against the backdrop of the final events of the end.